Saturday, October 21, 1978: Night Monster (1942) / The Mummy’s Ghost (1942)

Synopsis: The Ingston mansion lies near the spooky swamps of a rural area, miles from the nearest town. It’s gloomy enough in the daytime, but at night it’s really creepy. That’s when the fog rolls in and weird things start happening.

Kurt Ingston (Ralph Morgan) is the wealthy old recluse who lives there, along with his crazy sister Margaret (Fay Helm) and a gaggle of creepy domestics.

In fact the only one in the house who isn’t a weirdo is the maid, Milly (Janet Shaw), but she hasn’t been there long and has decided to quit. She is creeped out by the place and by its inhabitants. She also thinks that someone from the Ingston house is responsible for a murder that happened nearby, and that there might even be a connection between the murder and a hulking creature seen roaming the area at night. The local constable, however, isn’t buying it.

About the time Milly is leaving, a number of visitors are showing up at the house: Agor Singh (Nils Asther), a mystic who has gained the confidence of Kurt Ingston; Dr. Lynn Harper (Irene Hervey), a psychologist that a desperate Margaret had sent for; Dick Baldwin (Don Porter), a local mystery writer who is a frequent visitor to the estate. And Ingston has invited three doctors to pay a visit — King, Timmins and Phipps — the same three doctors whose botched surgery left him paralyzed.

Singh demonstrates his mystic powers by making a skeleton appear in the room — apparently real, and when he makes it disappear there is a pool of blood left on the carpet where it appeared.

Before long, the body of young Milly is found in the swamps nearby. This brings the local constable to the Ingston Mansion. But that doesn’t prevent the brutal murder of the three doctors. Harper and Baldwin begin to suspect Kurt Ingston — after all, he had a motive for wanting the doctors dead, and perhaps he wasn’t quite as paralyzed as he let on. But how could Ingston have committed the murders when it is revealed he has no arms or legs?

Comments: If I told you that Night Monster was shot in eight days, would you expect to see a good movie?

I’m guessing not. But this little flick really exceeds expectations. Admittedly, it ain’t Citizen Kane. But it is still a better movie than it has any right to be.

To me, Night Monster is a good example of how the old Hollywood film factory worked: a script was picked, contract actors were assigned, an existing set was dressed, a shooting schedule was posted, and it was running in theaters across America (in this case, at the bottom of a double-bill with The Mummy’s Tomb) almost before the prints were dry.

I have a lot of admiration for the old studio system because it was a marvelously efficient way to make lots of movies while ensuring at least a basic level of quality. In spite of what you may have heard, it hasn’t entirely disappeared; tune into the Disney Channel sometime, and you’ll see a vertically-integrated entertainment outlet at work.

So this is a worthy product of that system: craftsmanlike, competent, but nothing flashy.

And best of all, Night Monster doesn’t cheat the audience.

Perhaps I ought to explain what I mean by that. We’ve seen movies on Horror Incorporated that are basically conventional mysteries or thrillers with a smidgen of horror-movie content. Or — ahem –with less than a smidgen of horror-movie content. There’s nothing more frustrating than being suckered into a movie expecting one thing and getting another. So it’s refreshing to get a horror movie in which the horror elements are an essential part of the narrative.

But there is a bait-and-switch present in Night Monster, one that I haven’t been able to figure out. The top billing for the movie go to Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill. Yet both well-known horror actors are relegated to minor parts. Atwill plays the fatuous surgeon Dr. King, and Lugosi plays Rolf, the butler. Had I been casting the film, I’d have given Atwill the Kurt Ingston role, while Lugosi, not a particularly versatile actor, would have been a good choice for the mystic, Agor Singh (though I have no complaint with the performances of Ralph Morgan or Nils Asther — the latter delivers the obligatory there-are-some-things-that-man-was-not-meant-to-know line with appropriate gravity).

I suppose it’s a little late to send a letter complaining about the casting to director Ford Beebe, so I will conclude by praising the performance of Janet Shaw, who plays Milly. She has real presence when she’s on screen and disappears all too soon.

But when she’s there, you can’t take your eyes off her. In one scene the Ingston chauffeur is driving her to town. Suddenly he pulls off the road, turns off the car, and turns toward her with a wolfish gleam in his eye. Shaw delivers the best line in the movie: “What’s this all about,” she tosses off contemptuously, “as if I didn’t know?”

The Mummy’s Ghost

Synopsis: Andoheb (George Zucco), high priest of the secret order of Arkam (whom we’ve met previously in The Mummy’s Hand and The Mummy’s Tomb), summons acolyte Yousef Bey (John Carradine) and tells him he has an important mission for him. He recounts the story of Princess Ananka: how 3,000 years ago she had been an initiate of the order of Arkam, but broke her vows when she engaged in a forbidden love with Kharis, an Arkam priest. For this sacrilege Ananka was put to death and Kharis buried alive in Ananka’s tomb, doomed to guard the princess forever.

Nearly three millennia later, archeologists uncovered the tomb and brought the princess’ mummified body to the United States. Kharis was dispatched to America by Andoheb to kill those who had defiled the princess’ tomb, and was presumed destroyed. But Andoheb reveals that despite what the infidels believe (and despite what we saw with our own eyes at the end of The Mummy’s Tomb), Kharis was not destroyed; and he tasks Yousef Bey with traveling to America and returning both Princess Ananka and Kharis back to Egypt.

Bey travels to Mapleton, Massachusetts, where the events of The Mummy’s Tomb took place. He recovers Kharis, accidentally reactivated via tana leaf potion by Professor Norman (Frank Reicher) and goes to the Scripps museum, where the mummy of Princess Ananka is kept. But in trying to bring the princess to life, he instead turns the mummy to dust. Bey quickly realizes that the soul of Ananka has been transferred to the body of a living woman, an Egyptian college student named Amina Mansouri (Ramsey Ames).

Kidnapping Amina, Bey finds himself captivated by young Amina’s beauty, and he begins to hesitate. Should he return her to Egypt, where she will become subject to the will of the High Priest? Or is it possible that he can make the beautiful young Amina his bride, against all the teachings of the order of Arkam?

Comments: The fourth entry in Universal’s original cycle of mummy films, The Mummy’s Ghost isn’t an ambitious movie but gets the job done, having finally dispensed with Dick Foran and Wallace Ford’s goofball characters from The Mummys Hand (1940) and The Mummy’s Tomb (1942). Freed from the duo’s tiresome antics, the result is a nearly archetypal mummy movie of the black-and-white era. Lon Chaney, Jr. is all but unrecognizable under the bandages and heavy makeup, and Robert Lowery as Amina’s boyfriend Tom is forgettable (not surprising, given the shortage of young male actors during WWII). But the film succeeds due to a workmanlike (though decidedly talky) script by Griffin Jay, Henry Sucher and Brenda Weisberg, as well as a standout performance by Ramsay Ames as Amina.

It is often claimed that Ames was a last-minute replacement for Acquanetta, who was injured on the first day of shooting. It isn’t clear if that story is true or just a studio fabrication, but we can thank the Gods of Arkam that the Venezuelan Volcano didn’t play Amina. While Acquanetta was certainly beautiful, the woman couldn’t act scared in a dark alley, and the movie was better off without her. Ames is a better actress — by several orders of magnitude — and while the part doesn’t make enormous demands of her, she is convincing as an ordinary woman who comes to realize she embodies the spirit of the 3,000-year-old Ananka.

I’ve made no secret of my dislike for John Carradine, a dreadful ham who seemed enamored with the sound of his own voice. But Carradine’s booming self-importance actually works in portraying the fatuous religious fanatic Yousef Bey. The formula of Universal’s mummy films had already been set, of course, and it’s inevitable that Bey will abruptly fall for whatever female he’s been assigned to sacrifice to the Gods of Arkam. It’s a little hard to believe Bey suddenly throwing over his entire mission and religious vocation over the first pretty face he sees, but by this time it had become a sturdy plot point in the Mummy franchise, so we go with it.

George Zucco is a reassuring actor to see in any Universal film, even if it’s just a cameo as the luckless Andoheb, a guy who screwed the pooch 30 years ago by falling in love with Peggy Moran. We can only imagine how embarrassed he is now after dispatching two other priests of Arkam who make exactly the same mistake.

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